Retro-Active’s Top 10 Bosses

Could good old Wart be one of Retro-Active’s Top 10 Bosses? I’ll save you some time: No. No, he could not.

I love lists. You love lists. We all love lists. Maybe we all just love to hate lists. Well, here’s another one to dissect: Retro-Active’s Top 10 Bosses!

In case some of you out there take this more seriously than you should, let me preface this with a few things:
1) I fully admit that this list skews retro. This list is absolutely biased according to what I’m into. So if you’re unhappy that I didn’t represent BioShock or Dead Space or whatever, I guess I don’t know what else to tell you. Go read IGN.
2) You will not find Sephiroth or Psycho Mantis or Bowser here. I don’t care how great you think Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, and Super Mario Bros. are; none of those franchises need any more stroking from the internet.
3) This is opinion and opinion only.

So by “Top Bosses,” I guess I really mean “Subjective Favorite Bosses”. I’m not saying that these are necessarily the biggest, baddest, rootin’ tootin’est bosses of all time (though some might be in the running), but they are ones I’ve really enjoyed -or ones that have really pissed me off- over the years. So with that out of the way, let’s get on with it!

10. Rex (3D Monster Maze, Timex/Sinclair 1000)
Okay, so technically he’s not really a “boss” in the conventional sense of the word. And thanks to the minimal graphical abilities of the Timex/Sinclair 1000, he’s actually a little silly-looking. But he’s big, he’s hungry, you’re stuck in a maze with him, you have no defense against him, and the phrase “Rex has seen you” made you seriously reconsider just how sick of Flight Simulator and Frogger you were after all. (You ZX81 fans in the U.K. and Canada know what I’m talking about.)

Who’s silly-looking NOW?

9. Goro (Mortal Kombat, Arcade)
Many would argue that MKII’s Kintaro was a greater boss character than Goro was. And they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But before MKII rolled around, Goro was larger than life. In fact, he still is, in the context of the original Mortal Kombat. Scorpion and Kano suddenly didn’t seem that badass standing before a ‘roided-out four-armed giant. If he got even one of those hands on you, it was all over.

The last known photograph of Johnny Cage.

8. Sack Head (Splatterhouse, Arcade/TurboGrafx-16)
The Spatterhouse series had enough epically strange, disgusting, creepy-looking, disturbing, and tough boss characters to fill this list all by themselves. But in my estimation, none said “you’re gonna die” in clearer tones than this guy. Resembling what I can only imagine to be a mishmashing of Abobo from Double Dragon, Jason’s mother from Friday the 13th, and Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Sack Head’s influence could still be felt over a decade later in games like Resident Evil 4.

The aptly, yet unfortunately named Sack Head.

(Speaking of Jason, Rick looks awfully familiar…)

7. Anton Girdeux (Syphon Filter, PlayStation)
Flamethrowers are awesome. Most of the time. That time in the monument after you disarmed the four viral bombs in Lincoln Memorial Park? Not one of those times. This fire-flinging Frenchman would barbecue up some Gabe Flambée faster than you could say “je n’aime pas!” Feeling so much as a single BTU from Girdeux’s flames meant instant death. There were a lot of instant deaths.

Anton Girdeux

Fighting this guy wasn’t exactly “ooh-la-la.”

6. Mr. X (Resident Evil 2, PlayStation), Nemesis (Resident Evil 3, PlayStation)
These guys are lumped together because, for one thing, I love the Resident Evil games (the first four, anyway, plus Code: Veronica), but mainly because they’re really more or less the same thing and serve the same functions in their respective games. Which in no way trivializes them, I should add. They followed you through the entire game, periodically popping up when you least suspected it to scare the bejeezus out of you, before appearing at the end of the game -in grossly mutated forms (redundant much?)- for a final showdown in which they couldn’t be defeated with conventional weapons.

Mr. X: the bane of Resident Evil 2’s B Scenario.

One of the great things about Mr. X in particular was that, in a game where most of your enemies wanted little more than to eat you, his preferred method of ending your game was beating your ass into stew with his fists.

Nemesis, the featured nemesis of Resident Evil 3. (See what I did there?)

Nemesis, however, was not above using heavy ordnance to ruin your day.

5. Hitler (Wolfenstein 3D, PC)
Wolfenstein 3D took no shortage of liberties in the historical accuracy department, and its portrayal of Adolf Hitler was no exception. The image of Hitler stomping around in some kind of tank-suit contraption armed with enough miniguns to outfit a squadron of Cheyenne helicopters is deliciously absurd (even more absurd than Hitler The Warlock). Any manic laughter resulting from said absurdity quickly came to an end when you saw what Der Führer could do with all that hardware, however.

Du werdest eine krankenschwester gebrauchen!

Being able to peel off his goofy armor with your own minigun before literally melting his Nazi ass with it was awfully satisfying, though.

4. Akuma (Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Arcade/3DO)
Virtually every other “Top Bosses” list I’ve seen includes Street Fighter II’s M. Bison. I’m not sure I understand why, but I’m guessing it’s because they forgot about Akuma, Super Street Fighter II Turbo‘s elusive “hidden” boss. As badass as Bison is supposed to be (I don’t see it myself), Akuma showed up out of nowhere and blew through him like he wasn’t even there. And then he did the same to you. For as long as your quarters and/or patience held out.

Akuma, moments before wasting you.

3. Technodrome (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, NES)
If you can make it this far in the game, congratulations. Few things inspired more dread in an NES game than suddenly finding yourself in a cavernous and ominously empty room, hearing the TMNT boss music come on (say what you will about this game, but it has some of the best music of the 8-bit era), and seeing the Technodrome tank’s giant electricity-spewing prong slowly rolling up on you. And between zapping you, shooting you, running you over, and swarming you with Foot Soldiers (who flung hailstorms of shuriken at you), the Technodrome didn’t f@#$ around. If you didn’t have at least three healthy turtles (one of them being Donatello), you needed Kiais. If you didn’t have any, you were screwed.

Not good.

Of course, if you got inside the Technodrome, you were screwed anyway.

2. William Birkin (Resident Evil 2, PlayStation)
This guy is a piece of work. William Birkin is a recurring boss who reappeared at various stages of his ongoing mutation, each more fearsome than the last. The last two mutations almost bordered on ridiculous; the poor guy eventually turned into some kind of enormous, eyeball-covered bulldog with the face of a wood-chipper, and later into a gigantic tentacled blob with the face of a razor-fanged sphincter. Regardless of the form (?) he took, Birkin was a force to be feared. (Except for his early pipe-swinging form; he was kind of a wuss. But those other ones? You’d better be packing.)

William Birkin G3

The next time something punches a hole through the side of your industrial elevator tram, don’t go outside to see what it was.

1. Cyberdemon (Doom, PC)
When you got to the last level in The Shores of Hell, the instant you saw those dead Barons of Hell hanging on the walls, and that creepy semitone music started playing, that’s when you conveniently starting thinking about having better things to do. Even if you made it through the whole game without cheating up to this point, you were now overwhelmingly tempted to say “screw it” and plug in IDDQD. And when you finally worked up the courage to face the music you knew was waiting for you, you found a 20-foot cyborg minotaur from hell, with a missile launcher for an arm and a disposition as sunny as the dark side of the moon.

“I REGRET NOTH…………”

As if that weren’t hardcore enough, the good folks at id Software -the creators of Doom– saw fit to stick this tough customer all over the place in Thy Flesh Consumed, Doom II, and Final Doom like he wasn’t that big a deal. And that’s not even getting into fan-made custom WADs like Alien Vendetta and Hell Revealed, where Cyberdemons are only marginally less common than the swarms of lowly Imps and Former Humans. Welcome to hell, indeed…hope you packed your BFG 9000!


(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

 

Profiles In Gaming: The Odyssey of Ralph Baer

The father of home video games; Ralph Baer, circa 1975, demonstrating the Odyssey 200 system.

Even if you don’t know his name, you know his inventions. Simon. Computer Perfection. Maniac. Video game consoles.

But to identify Ralph Baer only with the electronic entertainment devices he created is to do a great disservice to one of the world’s most brilliant and prolific inventors. Since completing his tour of duty with the U.S. Army in 1946, Baer has accumulated over 150 U.S. and foreign patents to his name. He designed and built everything from military and espionage equipment to surgical tools. He was involved with the development of etched core memory and launch control equipment for the Saturn V rocket. In 2006 he was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George W. Bush. In 2010, Baer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C.

Video games have been a part of popular consciousness for over three decades. From relatively humble origins, the video game industry has grown into a multi billion-dollar a year behemoth. Games can now be seen in virtually every facet of modern life. It may be difficult to imagine a time when video games were not the pop culture juggernaut they are today. It may be even more difficult to imagine a time when they didn’t exist at all.

But all stories begin somewhere. And the story of video games as we known them, for all intents and purposes, begins with Ralph Baer.

Rodalben, Germany: birthplace of Ralph Baer.

The world was a troubled and very different place when Ralph Baer came into it on March 8, 1922, in a small southwestern German town called Rodalben. Europe was feeling the lingering effects of a monumentally disastrous World War, the root causes of which remained unaddressed by the vengeful peace terms that concluded it. In Baer’s native Germany, hyperinflation, economic collapse, and political extremism gave way to Adolf Hitler’s ascension to Chancellor in 1933, the same year Baer was expelled from school at age 11 for being Jewish.

Baer and his family fled Germany for the United States through the Netherlands in 1938, mere months before the events of Kristallnacht took place. Once in the U.S., he performed factory work while cultivating a love of electronics. He completed a correspondence course on the subject of radio technology before attending and graduating from the National Radio Institute in 1940.

Baer ran three New York City radio and television repair shops when he was drafted by the United States Army in 1943, during the height of the Second World War. He served one year stateside before being assigned to Military Intelligence in London, where he was attached to General Eisenhower’s headquarters. He was subsequently stationed in France. During his time in the army, Baer became an expert of some renown on military small arms; when he returned to the U.S. in 1946, he brought 18 tons of weapons with him and was instrumental in the creation and expansion of three official U.S. Army small arms exhibits.

Ralph Baer, during his service in World War II.

Once out of the Army, Baer went back to school again (let it never be said that he didn’t know the value of an education!), this time at the American Television Institute of Technology. He graduated in 1949 with a BS in Television Engineering; he was among the first people anywhere to be awarded such a degree.

During the ’50s, he got married and started his family, in addition to designing and building a plethora of different devices and electronic equipment, many of them under military contract. Such devices included a submarine-tracking analog computer for military aircraft radar use and a system used to monitor Soviet communications in Berlin. But even by 1951, while given the task by his employers at Loral Electronics to build the “best TV set in the world,” Baer had already conceived of games that could somehow be played on a television. His employers were not enthused with the idea.

It wasn’t until 1966, during his employment with Sanders Associates, Inc., that Baer first began conceptual work on a machine that would interface with a television set, display a set of objects on the screen, and allow the user to manipulate those objects. From this concept Baer, with assistance from fellow engineer Bob Tremblay, built his first game, which he concisely dubbed “Chase Game.” The game featured two objects on the screen (“spots,” as Baer called them). One “spot” represented a fox, the other a hound, and the game’s object, naturally, was for the hound to chase and catch the fox. “Chase Game” was certainly primitive, but the game (an unofficial project unrelated to Baer’s and Tremblay’s job duties, and for which they were not compensated) interested Baer’s employers enough to grant funding of $2000, with an additional $500 for materials.

The following year, 1967, saw the ever-innovative Baer making improvements on his game. Not the least significant of these was his development of a shooting game. Baer created and built a small photoreceptor into a toy gun while new teammate Bill Harrison designed the circuitry that allowed the gun to shoot the spots on the screen. And thus, light gun games were born.

Baer’s prototype light gun.

Later that same year, Baer worked up a concept for a ping-pong game with Harrison and Bill Rusch and demonstrated a fully-working prototype.

A little over a month later, in 1968, Baer filed his first video game-related patent application. By the end of ’68, Baer and his team had built and demonstrated a working prototype of an improvement upon the earlier game unit. Programmable by switches, the machine was now capable of playing football and volleyball games in addition to the existing ping-pong and gun games. Transparent plastic screen overlays provided color and background to the games.

A glimpse of things to come: the “Brown Box.”

Further developments and revisions culminated in “The Brown Box” in 1969, so named for the wood-patterned contact paper that covered the unit and its controllers.  Demonstrations of the Brown Box were performed for representatives of RCA, Zenith, Sylvania, General Electric, and Magnavox at Sanders Associates’ plant in Nashua, Hew Hampshire. A license agreement was drafted with RCA in 1970, but the deal fell through.

However, Bill Enders, one of the RCA men who had been impressed by the Brown Box, had left to become Vice President of Marketing at Magnavox. There, Enders championed Baer’s game machine. So, later in 1970, Baer and Sanders’ Corporate Director of Patents, Lou Etlinger, were invited to Magnavox’s plant in Ft. Wayne, Indiana to demo the Brown Box for their engineering, production, and marketing managers. It received a chilly reception from all except for the Vice President of Marketing for the TV division, Gerry Martin. And on his authority, Magnavox would pursue the TV games project, pending the approval of corporate management, which came nine months later in 1971.

Once a preliminary licensing agreement between Sanders Associates and Magnavox was signed, Baer’s Brown Box prototype and all related design documentation were turned over to the engineers at Magnavox, who quickly began development of a production version of the game unit. In 1972, Magnavox unveiled the finished product, called Odyssey, to Magnavox dealers across the U.S.; home video games had arrived.

The fruit of Ralph Baer’s labor: Odyssey, the world’s first home video game, from Magnavox.

During the development of the Brown Box/Odyssey, Baer conceived of games that could be played “online” through cable or telephone lines, decades years before online gaming as we know it came into being in the 1990s. He also designed “active cartridges” containing additional electronic components. These were to add more features to the games, such as sound effects, variable net position, and variable ball speed, but these were deemed unfeasible.

In the ensuing years, Baer assisted the development of follow-up Odyssey consoles, such as the Odyssey 100 and Odyssey 200, and Magnavox’s next-generation programmable console, Odyssey 2. He also supported Magnavox and Sanders in their patent infringement lawsuits against Atari and Nintendo, which Magnavox/Sanders won. Baer also consulted with Coleco on the development of their Telstar and Combat! game consoles, as well as their Kid Vid module for the Atari 2600 console. He also designed the classic handheld memory game Simon (inspired by Atari’s Touch Me game, in a somewhat ironic twist), as well as other early ’80s classics Maniac, Computer Perfection, and Amazatron. In addition to his games, Baer also created numerous toys and other consumer products.

Ralph Baer surrounded by his most famous inventions

Baer still continues to design, build, and tinker at the age of 90. He recently published a book in 2005 about the history of video games from his unique vantage point, titled “Videogames: In The Beginning.” From 2004 to 2006, Baer built an entire line of working recreations of his various Odyssey prototypes, which he donated to the Museum of The Moving Image in Astoria, New York. His original Brown Box now resides at the Smithsonian Institution, but he has an entire lifetime’s worth of invention and innovation under his belt, from medical instruments and military hardware to toys and talking doormats. And he shows no signs of stopping.

What will he come up with next?

Ralph Baer, age 90, in his workshop.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

Quintessentially ’80s video games

Ah, the 1980s.

It was an exciting time of terrible fashion, cocaine, angular automotive design, Middle Eastern crises, AIDS, and music excellent and awful in equal measure. Arnold Schwarzenegger had not yet ascended to governorship of California. Mike Tyson had not yet descended into full-fledged lunacy. People thought you looked cool and tough when you wore a red bandana and a cutoff jean jacket instead of just thinking you might have mental problems. Maggie Thatcher was the man, the A-Team had the plan, and the San Francisco ’49ers dominated like few other football teams in NFL history.

Few other time periods in the history of the world are so synonymous with the products they birthed than the 1980s. Rubik’s Cubes. Cabbage Patch dolls. The DeLorean. Leg warmers. Members Only jackets. Transformers. Walkmans. VCRs. Boom Boxes. New Coke. Old Coke. And then there were the video games. And few of those video games exemplify the glorious yuppyism and Russophobia of the Reagan years more than these:

Tax Avoiders (Atari 2600)
Run around a platform-laden screen collecting “$” while trying to avoid “red tape.” Then, in the second screen, run around and climb up and down ladders to avoid the IRS agent; the longer you can keep out of his clutches, the more points money you earn. Then repeat the cycle until the tax year is up. Only in the ’80s could a game like this ever have seemed like a good idea.

Tax Avoiders (Atari 2600)

Tax Avoiders: Income screen. Yup.

Interestingly, the game mechanics of Tax Avoiders -and even the character you control- are identical to those of 20th Century Fox’s Atari adaptation of the movie Porky’s (speaking of ’80s wonders…), which was released around the same time; it is inconclusive who ripped off who.

Communist Mutants From Space (Atari 2600 + Supercharger)
This game’s story reads like the plot of an exceptionally bad ’50s sci-fi propaganda movie: “The evil ruler of the planet Rooskie has launched a diabolical attack. A cunning Mother Creature, filled with irradiated vodka, transforms helpless slaves captured on peaceful planets into bloodthirsty COMMUNIST MUTANTS!” Irradiated vodka? WTF? Anyway, playing the game reveals that none of the title’s nor instruction manual’s references to communism actually have anything at all to do with, well, anything. Simply calling this “Mutants From Space” wouldn’t have made the slightest difference, although it wouldn’t be the campy curiosity it is today.

Communist Mutants From Space (Atari 2600)

Is this what Lenin had in mind?

Despite the cheese factor of the title and premise, Communist Mutants From Space is actually a surprisingly good take on Galaxian. Additionally, it earns extra ’80s Points for being not only an Atari 2600 game, but an Atari 2600 game on cassette; a device called The Supercharger plugged into the Atari and allowed advanced games such as this, which couldn’t be done at the time on cartridge, to be loaded from cassette tape.

The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt! (Odyssey 2)
First off, this one has a board and pieces. Secondly, it’s a stock market simulation game. It’s exactly as much fun as it sounds like.

The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt! is one of the Odyssey 2’s three Master Strategy Series titles. These games are interesting in that, in an effort to create large and relatively expansive games while circumventing the Odyssey’s hardware limitations (which were painfully obvious even by 1982), they included game boards, playing pieces, special keyboard overlays, and other means of physical game interaction. They were, in a sense, hybrids of video games and board games, a concept never really seen before (the original Odyssey notwithstanding) or since. But while two of these three games, Conquest of The World! and Quest For The Rings!, respectively offered complex military strategy scenarios and Tolkienian adventure, The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt! offered a rudimentary and austere stock market simulation that was difficult for Odyssey 2 owners bother with when they could play UFO!, K.C.’s Krazy Chase!, or Pick-Axe Pete! instead.

Just what you always wanted in a video game: a stock market ticker tape.

And yes, all Odyssey 2 games have exclamation marks in their names (except for the very, very few titles released by Imagic and Parker Bros).

Take The Money and Run! (Odyssey 2)
Have you ever had one of those nightmares where something is relentlessly chasing you, and no matter where you go, you can never escape? That’s basically what Take The Money and Run! is.

When a game takes place on a planet called “Keynesium,” it’s like it is warning you to stay away. Take The Money and Run! puts two players -and only two players (if you want to play alone, you have to watch the other guy just stand there)- into Keynesium’s “electronic labyrinth of more than a trillion different mazes!” as they do battle with the forces of…uh…economics. These economic forces -Inflation, Taxes, Income, Investment, Expenses, Reward, and Thief (just like you learned in Econ 101)- are represented by little robots, one to each player. The robots chase the players when a decrease to cash is in effect, such as Taxes, Expenses, Inflation, and Thief; when an increase to cash is in effect, the players go on the offensive. The longer a player goes without being caught by the (-) robot, or the sooner he catches the (+) robot, the better the score, which is naturally measured in dollars. It’s actually pretty similar to Tax Avoiders (or should I say, Tax Avoiders is like Take The Money and Run!, which came out earlier). But that’s basically it. It’s tag. With money. And relentless little econobots that haunt your dreams.

Beware the pink robots that chase you throughout Keynesium’s trillions of mazes!

What was the deal with games like this? Were we so obsessed with money in the ’80s that we actually needed video games about money?

Campaign ’84 (Colecovision)
Somebody, somewhere, thought this game needed to exist. Damn if I know why.

Campaign '84 (Colecovision)

Apparently Campaign ’84 even tried to ban itself.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

A closer look at: Super Demon Attack

Title: Super Demon Attack
Platform: TI-99/4a
Publisher: Imagic
Year: 1983

They just don’t make cover art like they used to.

Demon Attack was one of those games you could almost trip over back in the day. It was everywhere. Originally an Atari VCS title (and supposed knockoff of the Atari arcade game Phoenix), Imagic ported it to just about every major console and computer platform available at the time. The usual suspects like the Intellivision, Atari 400/800, and Commodore 64 received a port, and even relatively obscure machines like the IBM PCjr., TRS-80 Color Computer and Odyssey 2 played host to a port of Demon Attack.

Texas Instruments’ TI-99/4a computer was no exception. Though the addition of the “Super” prefix on the TI-99/4a version would have you believe that it is a sequel to the original game, it is actually yet another port of the original Demon Attack…but snazzier.

In a premise normally reserved for antagonists more extraterrestrial than demonic, Super Demon Attack places you in control of a laser cannon on the moon, where you are Earth’s last defense against an onslaught of invading demons (though why they throw themselves at you on the moon instead of just going straight to Earth is anyone’s guess). You fire up at them, destroying waves of invaders before flying up to meet the master demon ship, referred to by the instruction manual as Pandemonium.

The visuals in Super Demon Attack are fairly striking.  The same can be said for its ominous music, which does not appear in any other version of Demon Attack. The background graphics are very crisp, if not as detailed as those of the Commodore or PCjr. versions. But even before starting the game, this is already a better-looking and better-sounding Demon Attack than most of the other versions.

But the in-game graphics are where Super Demon Attack really earns its “Super” moniker. For starters, the enemies encountered in Super Demon Attack are no longer the generic swooping bird- and bug-like things found in other Demon Attack games, but rather are decidedly and identifiably, well, demonic. Instead, we have things that resemble snake-haired monkey heads (“Medusa Monkeys,” as I like to call them), bat-winged skulls, monster spiders, tentacled goblins, two-headed dragons. and flying vampire snakes. Each of these monsters gets its own unsettling musical theme, as well.

Beware these possessed ruffians and their lethal Lawn Jarts!

As if that weren’t enough, there’s also a boss level (this is missing in the Atari 2600 and Odyssey versions). Tangentially, as a veteran of other versions of Demon Attack, I expected this the first time I played Super Demon Attack; I’d seen the big angry cheeseburger-looking thing in the Intellivision edition and the snaggletoothed cyclops demon in the Commodore port. What I didn’t expect was that it would be a gargantuan goat-horned Cyberdemon overlord straight out of Doom, sitting on the throne of hell itself. Surely this must be the game’s ultimate enemy? Well, as if that weren’t enough, once the Cyberdemon’s guard is defeated, the disembodied head of Dracula appears and spits fireballs at you from behind the cover of an indestructible giant eyeball. Surprise!

And as if THAT weren’t enough…Dracula seems to have invisible hair. Verily, his sorcery knows no bounds.

The Cyberdemon’s first job out of college -as Dracula’s henchman- before landing his big break in Doom. No, but seriously, he WILL eat your soul.

For a 1983 game, this is some freaky stuff. Even in 2011, the first time I played this, I was a little taken aback by it. Playing Super Demon Attack after playing other TI-99/4a games -innocuous knockoffs of popular and equally innocuous arcade games, or said arcade games themselves- is like going from The Brady Bunch to The Exorcist, in a delightfully wacky kind of way.

Super Demon Attack is very different from every other rendition of Demon Attack. But the most important thing that it shares with them is that it’s a damn fun game to play. Its speed and pace aren’t as frantic as those of its siblings, but the excellent music, sharp graphics, solid gameplay, and occult twist make this one definitely worth exploring for ’99ers and the TI-curious. I’d easily categorize it as one of the best games available for the TI-99/4a.

Super Demon Attack was originally intended to feature voice synthesis when used with the TI’s Voice Synthesizer, but this was taken out of the game. We are left to wonder how much more amazing this game would have been…


(Now, what does anything about this game have to do with silver space dinosaurs with airplane parts and missiles shoved up their asses?)

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

Zork, meet Doom.

You may be a crackshot with a mouse or analog stick, but how good are you with just a keyboard?

How about without graphics?

In the late ’70s through the mid ’80s, text adventures were mainstays of computer gaming. In the ’90s through, well, today, the first person shooter -then known as the “Doom Clone,” usually with good reason- has been one of gamedom’s defining genres.  Programmer Eigen Lenk has now fused the two together in his surprisingly innovative (as in, “how has this not been done before?”) text-based multiplayer shooter, creatively entitled Text-based Multiplayer Shooter.

A loving tribute; old-timers and vintage enthusiasts will recognize the display bezel as that of the classic IBM 5151 monitor. The sticky note is a nice touch, too.

Worlds and generations collide in Text-based Multiplayer Shooter. Its command-line interface recalls text-based classics like Zork and Colossal Cave, while its premise, naturally, is to frag your opponents within the confines of an obstacle-laden 10×10 grid. Every step of this game is classic text-based goodness, and n00bs will make ample use of the the “help” command. You must first “log in” with a username and password that you can apparently just make up on the spot. You can then choose a game/server to join, as is the norm with modern online multiplayer games.  In true text adventure fashion, even this is accompanied with:

“You can hear screaming and guns being fired in the distance. The air is thick with tension. You hold onto your trusty firearm just a little tighter. No grues to be seen.”

You maneuver around with commands such as “go north” and “go east.” You can fire in the direction you are facing with the “fire” command. A map showing your position and any available items can be called up with “map.”  You can even chat to other players with the “say” command.

As was true with many of the classic text adventures, TbMS has a pretty unforgiving parser. All commands must be typed fully and correctly. And since this is a real-time frag-fest, you’d better be able to enter them quickly and accurately. There aren’t too many games anymore where a typo can get you killed, or where your most dangerous opponents could well include administrative assistants and data entry clerks. Hardcore gamers, eat your hearts out.

You can play Text-based Multiplayer Shooter here.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

A closer look at: Alien

Title: Alien
Platform: Atari Video Computer System
Publisher: Fox Video Games (20th Century Fox)
Year: 1982

In your living room, no one can hear you scream.

Before we dive in here, I’m going to grab some coffee -it’s the only thing good on this ship- and tell you a little bit about what this game has meant to me as a gamer and collector:

I’m a huge fan of the Alien movies.  All of three of them. ( [/tongueincheek] )  By the time I was in 7th grade, in 1996-97, I had seen each of them probably a couple dozen times.  In retrospect, I should be shocked that my parents allowed me to watch these movies -especially the exceptionally violent and vulgar Alien 3- but I think I turned out mostly alright. Mostly.

I’m also a huge fan of video games.  And I’m a huge, huge fan of Aliens video games.  I’d played and loved Alien Trilogy on the Playstation, the excellent Alien 3 ports on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, and of course the Aliens Vs. Predator arcade beat-’em-up (technically that’s a different franchise, but there’s already enough nerdiness on this page without getting into that).  I was even lucky (?) enough to experience Alien 3: The Gun at a local bowling alley.  And I knew a kid at school who had an old copy of a computer game based on the second film, Aliens, probably for the Commodore or Apple.  But I’d never heard of a game based on the original movie.

So you can probably imagine how stoked out of my Surge-addled mind I was when, while feeding my curious adolescent mind information about the game systems of the stone age with help from America Online, Netscape Navigator, and Greg Chance’s website videogames.org, I discovered that the old Atari 2600 had a game for it based on the original Alien.  And that was it; I had to play it.  And to play it, I had to get an Atari (emulation wasn’t really feasible for me at the time).  And on the way to getting an Atari, I got stuff that was like an Atari, such as Odyssey 2 and Intellivision. The jist of the story is that Alien on the Atari VCS helped push me towards collecting vintage video games.  I guess I could have just said that from the start…

But enough of that nonsense – on to the game!  In Alien, you are placed into the air shafts of the Nostromo, the space freighter in which the bulk of the film takes place.  The tunnels are infested with alien eggs, and your mission is to crush all the eggs to clear the ship of the alien menace.  The alien monsters pursuing you can be temporarily destroyed if your human collects a pulsar.  A warp tunnel connects the opposite ends of the screen, and extra points can be earned by collecting a bonus item that periodically appears in the center of the playfield.

If this premise sounds suspiciously similar to that of a certain arcade game that was tremendously popular in 1982, that’s probably because it is.

Alien for the Atari 2600: It’s better than it looks.

Alien is Pac-Man.  I’m not sure which Fox honcho saw Pac-Man in the arcades and said, “Yep, that’s Alien,” but nevertheless, here we are are.  And that’s not a bad thing.  Apart from bearing little resemblance to the Ridley Scott masterpiece, Alien is a very good Pac-alike.  It’s actually one of the better Pac-Man games available for the Atari VCS, in my opinion surpassed only by Atari’s excellent Jr. Pac-Man, which came out about five years later.

It helps to have an imagination.

Alien does have a couple of bells and whistles that set it apart from the rest of the early-’80s Knockoff-Man herd, however.  The coolest of which is the flamethrower.  The coolness of being able to fire an incendiary weapon at the haranguing key-wind chattering teeth aliens is tempered, unfortunately, by the fact that it doesn’t really do anything.  Okay, that’s not totally true; although the flamethrower can’t actually do any damage to the aliens, lighting it off can scare them away momentarily.  It’s not guaranteed to work, and each human (read: extra life) has only a small amount of fuel, but if you’re about to be cornered or worse, at least you have a Hail Mary Pass.

Another of Alien’s distinguishing features is its bonus stage, which can be reached every time the screen is cleared of dots alien eggs.  This stage has your human moving vertically through crossing rows of the pastel-colored alien nasties, a la Freeway, in an attempt to reach the bonus item at the top of the screen.  This isn’t tremendously exciting, but it does provide contrast to a game that could otherwise quickly descend into monotony.  Besides, in a game of high scores such as this, who wouldn’t want a shot at bonus points?

An interesting thing about Alien is that while its connection to the movie is, by and large, contained only in the instruction manual and box description, the game itself actually references other movies.  A few of the bonus items that appear in Alien’s later rounds, analogously to Pac-Man’s various fruits and bells and keys, include what appear to be TIE Fighters and Starship Enterprises. It’s hard to know exactly what these objects are truly supposed to represent, since even the instruction manual refers to them only as “1st Surprise,” “2nd Surprise,” and “3rd Surprise.”  They sure look like TIEs and Enterprises, though.

The back of Alien’s box does give a nod to Tom Skerritt’s character from the movie, however, noting that the game was programmed by “Dallas North” (actually Doug Neubauer, who went on to do the outstanding Solaris, Super Football, and Radar Lock games toward the end of the 2600’s life).  “Dallas” also provides playing tips in the instruction manual.

As if you’d want playing tips from this guy. If you do, you probably didn’t see Alien.

In spite of its idiosyncrasies (and what Atari VCS game is without those?), Alien is one of my favorite Atari games. It’s arguably a better Pac-Man game than Atari’s own 2600 version of Pac-Man, and unquestionably superior to weak “me too” titles like Apollo’s Shark Attack.  It’s got pretty good graphics (by 1982 Atari VCS standards) and effective sounds.  The controls are responsive and tight.  The game is well-designed, and has a good mix of difficulty with four skill levels.  It’s based on the greatest science fiction movie ever made.  And most importantly, it’s fun.  What’s not to like?

If you’re looking to build up your Atari library, or maybe get into collecting, Alien is a pretty easy title to come by and shouldn’t run you much more than $5.00, maybe $10-15 with a box and manual.  I highly recommend picking it up.  There is, however, another version of Alien that is exceptionally rare.  This is the version “released” by Xante.  By “released,” I mean Xante’s cartridges were actually created in kiosks where a customer could select an existing game -licensed from other companies, in this case Fox Games- and download it over a phone line onto an EPROM, creating the cartridge on the spot.

Regular Alien cartridge = $5.00…

…Xante Alien cartridge = $ Crew Expendable

Until next time, this is Jeffery K., last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off!

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

Complete copy of Atari VCS game “Air Raid” sells for $33,433.30

This boxed copy of the Atari VCS game Air Raid sold for over $33,000 earlier this week.

The Atari 2600 game Air Raid has long been considered one of the system’s “holy grails” by collectors.  It is believed that only 20 or fewer copies of the distinctive powder blue-colored, T-handled cartridge were ever manufactured by the game’s elusive and mysterious creator, Men-A-Vision, in 1982.  Until recently, it was also believed that no packaging (read: box and instruction manual) ever existed for the game.  That theory got blown up when the first and only known boxed copy surfaced in 2010; its discoverer subsequently sold it off for a handsome $31,600.

The Air Raid cartridge itself. Even apart from its rarity, it is coveted by collectors due to its unusual blue color and “T” handled shell. The quality of the artwork is not far removed from that of pirated cartridges from Asia and South America.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when a father and daughter duo were prompted to search through their own impressive Atari collection, which had long been in storage, after belatedly reading about the discovery and sale of the first and only boxed Air Raid two years earlier.  The father and owner of the collection, Harv Bennett of Pomona, California, recalled possessing a boxed copy of Air Raid himself.  And as you have surely deduced by now, Harv was correct.

After coming to the forums at AtariAge (whose user community is widely considered to be the authority in all things Atari) and having the game and its box verified, the game was posted for auction at GameGavel.com.  The rest, as they say, is history.

You can read the story behind this example of Air Raid in the auction link above.  In short, it was a promotional/demonstration copy that Mr. Bennett, the assistant manager of a local drug store, was lent by Men-A-Vision’s agent to try out at home and see if he wanted to sell in his store.  Mr. Bennett declined to order Air Raid for his store (citing uninteresting gameplay, strange packaging design, and his belief that nobody would buy it) and kept the game after Men-A-Vision’s agent declined to take it back; apparently the agent had received similar feedback about the game from his other prospects as well.  

But what makes this example particularly exciting -and indeed more valuable than the previous boxed Air Raid– is that, during the auction, Harv and his daughter Alana discovered something hidden inside the box behind the cartridge tray that most collectors were convinced didn’t even exist: the game’s instruction manual.  On top of that, the game cartridge, box, and the manual are all in pristine condition.  Apart from the brief time Mr. Bennett demoed the game for his store, the cartridge has only been played two other times since 1982; once in the mid ’90s, and once a couple of weeks ago to prove that it works

The discovery of the instruction manual is doubly important and exciting for Atari collectors because, in addition to merely existing, it provides the first solid lead to learning who was involved with Men-A-Vision, where it was located, how it operated, how Air Raid came about, and how many copies may still exist: a street address.  Before the discovery of the instruction manual and Men-A-Vision’s Sunset Boulevard mailing address, it was unknown whether Men-A-Vision was even located in the United States; Air Raid was often theorized to be yet another Taiwanese pirated cartridge or hack, as much of its source code borrows heavily (read: was lifted outright) from that of the far more common game Space Jockey, by U.S. Games.

It must also be noted that during the time this CIB (“complete in box”) Air Raid was up for auction on GameGavel, yet another boxed copy appeared on eBay.  This surprise copy lacked the instruction manual, however, and the box was in substantially lesser condition than Harv and Alana Bennett’s copy; it sold for a “mere” $13,988.89, less than half of what the complete copy on GameGavel sold for.  It does, however, raise the number of known boxed Air Raids to three.  It is rumored that the only reason we even know the game is called Air Raid is because a former collector owned a boxed copy in the early ’90s (this follows, as there is no print on the cartridge label or in the game itself to indicate its title), and that this most recent “ebay copy” may be that box; this is unconfirmed, and likely unconfirmable, at least as of now.

While the $33,000+ the Bennetts earned from their Air Raid sale may be the record price for an Atari VCS game, it still fails to match the $55,000 that one wealthy Nintendo fanatic was willing to pay for a prototype of The Legend Of Zelda.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss